Last Thursday evening I had the opportunity to hear Susan Beckham Zurenda speak about her debut novel, Bells for Eli. Susan grew up in the town I now live in and I’d enjoyed the book, so of course I went. The reading took place at the historic Wade-Beckham House – yes, the same name as the author.
This beautiful home has been in Susan’s family for generations, and where she spent much of her growing up years visiting her grandparents who lived there. Her cousin now owns and lives in the home. The house sits on a rise at a curve on a two-lane highway, and I’d driven past it often, always curious about it. The Wade-Beckham House (in the story Magnolia Manor) figures prominently in Bells for Eli, and an interesting part of Susan’s talk was hearing the history of the house, her memories of being part of its history, and how some of those memories and the house itself became part of Ellison Winfield’s and Adeline Green’s world.
From the jacket flap for Bells for Eli: “First cousins Eli Winfield and Delia Green are meant to grow up happily and innocently across the street from one another amid the supposed wholesome values of small-town Green Branch, South Carolina, in the 1960s and 70s. But Eli’s tragic accident changes the trajectory of their lives and of those connected to them. Shunned and even tortured by his peers for his disfigurement and frailty, Eli struggles for acceptance in childhood as Delia passionately devotes herself to defending him. Delia’s vivid and compassionate narrative voice presents Eli as a confident young adolescent–the visible damage to his body gone–but underneath hides indelible wounds harboring pain and insecurity, scars that rule his impulses. And while Eli cherishes Delia more than anyone else and attempts to protect her from her own troubles, he cares not for protecting himself. It is Delia who has that responsibility, growing more challenging each year.”
I won’t tell you what the tragic accident was, but it’s not anything you’d expect. Susan’s telling of Eli’s injuries and treatment is sometimes graphic, but much-needed and always with a gentle hand, and the lingering effects of the injury are believable. The reader, like Delia herself, has sympathy and roots for Eli even as he makes reckless decisions. The reader also feels Delia’s frustration of being a girl growing up in this era, that time when women were finding their voices and young girls were listening-but being raised by 50s era parents. Together the cousins discover and keep family secrets, while they struggle against their own growing intimacy. Susan keeps the tension at just the right force between action and reaction, right up to the surprise ending.
The author also brings the 60s and 70s alive through musical references, (Eli’s favorite song is Stairway to Heaven), familiar products (who else used Sun-In hair lightener during the summer?), and the backdrop of the Viet Nam War, civil rights, and the changing Southern culture. Susan balances the turmoil of the times with Delia’s and Eli’s coming-of-age story.
I recommend Bells for Eli. Bells for Eli was named the Gold medal Winner in the 2021 Independent Publisher Book Awards for the Best First Book, is an Okra Pick (titles chosen by SIBA Indie Bookstores), 2020 Best Indie Book chosen by Shelf Unbound, and Best Book Award Finalist by AmericanBookFest, among other numerous recognitions.
I also recommend attending author readings and book signings. It’s interesting getting little extra insights into the writing of a book, and fun to see the author’s personality come out. For Thursday’s reading, Susan teamed up the Katawba Valley Land Trust, a non-profit conservation organization dedicated to protecting the lands, waterways and historic and cultural resources in several surrounding counties, and proceeds from tickets and book sales went to it. A good match and worthy organization, and the roughly 300 acres surrounding the historic Wade-Beckham House are protected by the Trust. Delia and Eli would be happy about that.
To read more about author Susan Beckham Zurenda.